Welcome to Season 10, Episode 9 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
The Patriots’ 27-24 victory over the Chargers last Sunday wasn’t just their most satisfying of the season. It provided the blueprint for how they should play, and how they will have to play if they’re going to go on the kind of roll that they suddenly seem capable of achieving.
The Patriots’ defense, with Adrian Phillips picking off two passes (one returned for a touchdown) and Matthew Judon taking up residency in the Chargers’ backfield, looked as formidable as it has all season. Damien Harris stormed his way to 80 hard-fought yards while scoring a touchdown for the fourth straight game. And Mac Jones, after a scattershot first half, played his best when it was needed most, showing uncommon resilience for a young quarterback.
It’s not exactly a secret formula — play stout defense, stick to the running game, and trust the quarterback to convert a few important throws — but in victory over a good team, it did feel like the Patriots discovered not just who they are but who they can be.
They will aim for their third straight win — something they haven’t done since they went 8-0 to start the 2019 season — on the road Sunday against a Carolina Panthers team that attempts to follow the defense-and-running-game formula but doesn’t get much help from the quarterback.
The Panthers feature one of the NFL’s top defenses statistically. They’re second in total defense (295.6 yards per game, trailing only the Bills), second in pass defense (188.9 yards per game, again trailing the Bills), 13th against the run (106.7 yards per game), and fifth in points (19.9). In last Sunday’s 19-13 win over the Falcons, which snapped a four-game losing streak, they allowed just 213 total yards.
The Panthers ran 47 times against the Falcons for 203 yards, with Chuba Hubbard gaining 82 on 24 carries with a touchdown. Hubbard could fall back into the understudy role Sunday with Christian McCaffrey, one the league’s most dynamic players, designated to return from injured reserve.
Running back isn’t the only unsettled position in the Panthers’ backfield. Quarterback and renowned ghost-spotter Sam Darnold, who passed for 129 yards and ran for 66 last week, has been in concussion protocol. If he can’t go, P.J. Walker, he of the career 49.3 completion percentage, will take the snaps. Neither should scare the Patriots’ defense, which allows an average of 20.5 points, eighth in the league.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this thing started …
Three players I’ll be watching other than the QBs
Stephon Gilmore: It’s a bummer that he’s no longer a Patriot. It’s a bummer that it ended badly. And it’s a bummer that Bill Belichick got only a measly 2023 sixth-round pick in return for one of the best cornerbacks (I’d put him third behind Hall of Famers Mike Haynes and Ty Law) in franchise history, and one of the best big-money free agent signings in league history. It’s too bad all of this went down the way it did. But there’s no time to be sentimental or nostalgic about Gilmore’s four full seasons in New England, because he is an opponent to be reckoned with now. Gilmore played just 17 defensive snaps in his Panthers debut, but they were meaningful ones — he locked down talented Falcons rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, holding him to two catches for 13 yards. Gilmore, whose mellow personality masks an admirable competitive spirit that all elite cornerbacks have, reportedly told Panthers coaches to put him on Pitts. There’s been speculation this past week that the Panthers would continue to ease Gilmore back to a regular workload, perhaps playing him only on third downs. Don’t buy it. There’s no particular Patriots pass catcher for him to emphasize shutting down, but it’s easy to envision him taking, say, Jakobi Meyers on third down, or Hunter Henry in the red zone, and being deployed to defend the Patriot most likely to be Jones’s target at a given point on the field. Gilmore is not about to be a bit player against the team that traded him a month ago.
Shaq Thompson: While Gilmore’s debut got the headlines after the win over the Falcons, it was the return of the speedy do-it-all linebacker (for a comparison, think Myles Jack during that brief time when the Jaguars were good) that was the biggest factor in the Panthers’ defensive performance. Thompson, who hadn’t played since suffering a plantar fascia injury against the Cowboys in Week 4, led the Panthers with 10 tackles and picked off Matt Ryan in the second quarter. Thompson has been with the Panthers his entire career — he was a first-round pick in 2015 — but he does have a tie to Boston sports. An 18th-round pick out by the Red Sox of high school in 2012, Thompson played briefly in the organization, going 0 for 39 with 37 strikeouts for the Gulf Coast League Red Sox. Yeah, he’s playing the right sport.
Matthew Judon: Adrian Phillips is the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week, and he deserves to be for his pivotal pick-6 in the Chargers game. But Judon has easily been the Patriots’ most dominating defensive player, and an argument can be made that he was as well last Sunday. Judon finished with two sacks — his second two-sack game of the season — while registering eight hurries and a staggering 10 pressures on Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. Judon now has eight sacks — his career-high is 9.5, set with the 2019 Ravens — and if he continues doing this spot-on 1985 Andre Tippett imitation for the rest of the season, his name will belong in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
Grievance of the week
A few days ago, I wrote about how the importance of the Patriots getting the Jones pick right has been somewhat understated given the stature of the quarterback position and how essential it is to have a high-quality player there. There were quite a few responses to this, understandably given the subject, but there was one particular perspective that I found particularly annoying: The notion that the Patriots didn’t really want Jones, because if they did, they would have traded up from No. 15 to take him. The reluctance from alleged Patriots fans to give Belichick credit for getting this right is perplexing. So what if they didn’t trade up? They got a player they liked — he’s the first quarterback ever selected in the first round by Belichick — at a great spot, without having to give up assets to move higher. They did their due diligence on what teams ahead of them were thinking and what their needs were, and were confident Jones wouldn’t go before their pick if the 49ers passed on him at No. 3. They played it the right way, and deserve nothing but credit for that.
Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore vs. Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson
In a parallel universe (gestures at the sky) somewhere, Gilmore is still with the Patriots, healthy, happy, and charged with shutting down Moore. But in this universe we’re occupying, Gilmore is an ex-Patriot on the opposite sideline, and the duty of checking the Panthers’ most dangerous receiver by far should fall to Jackson.
Moore, the Panthers’ first-round pick in the 2018 draft, is one of the NFL’s most productive receivers, and one of the league’s most unheralded players at any position. With Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback last season, Moore posted his second straight 1,000-yard season, with 1,193 yards on 66 catches, an 18.1-yard average, and 4 touchdowns.
Moore’s yards per catch is down significantly (12.9) this season, but he’s still having a typically excellent year, with 50 catches (on 81 targets) and three touchdowns. Moore is third in the league in targets (behind the Rams’ Cooper Kupp and the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill), tied for fifth in receptions with Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin, and seventh in yards.
Moore has remained highly productive despite having little to no support from the rest of the Panthers’ pass catchers. Robby Anderson is second among Panthers wide receivers in catches — with 18, on an inefficient 50 targets.
It’s a Patriots canon that Belichick usually figures out how to take away the opponent’s best option. Even if McCaffrey is a go, it’s hard to figure he’ll be anything close to his usual self, and so Moore remains the Panther the Patriots must focus on shutting down.
That duty should fall to Jackson, the ballhawk and clear No. 1 cornerback, provided he’s over the illness that kept him out of Wednesday’s practice. The Patriots held Herbert and the Chargers to 210 passing yards last Sunday, an outstanding performance, and perhaps an unexpected one given the loss of slot corner Jonathan Jones to a season-ending shoulder injury. The Panthers don’t have nearly the weapons the Chargers do, and if Jackson slows down Moore, the Patriots’ pass defense should enjoy another satisfying Sunday.
Prediction, or is Chris Weinke still the Panthers’ backup QB?
The Patriots have won two in a row and three of four. They’re one of just five teams in the NFL ranked in the top 10 in offense and defense. Jones is coming off a game in which he led the Patriots to victory after a slow and frustrating start, a sign of maturity and poise in a young quarterback. Harris is on pace to run for well over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns. The Patriots are trending the right way, and there’s plenty to be optimistic about.
The next step is to correct some of the unforgivably foolish mistakes that have plagued them too often — holding penalties, too-many-men-on-the-field blunders, timeouts wasted at inopportune times, and on occasion, some curious play-calling on offense. These are details that need to be addressed and corrected if the Patriots have any intention of playing meaningful games in January.
This is the week to do it. The Panthers have some high-end talent on defense, and they’ll try to get after Jones with a pass rush that has collected 21 sacks (Haason Reddick leads the way with 7.5). The Patriots have done a better job of protecting their quarterback since Mike Onwenu moved to right tackle and Ted Karras took over at left guard, but the Chargers did have some success disrupting the pocket and Jones’s timing, particularly in the first half.
But the Panthers’ offense is lacking no matter who plays quarterback, and though the teams come into the matchup with identical records, this is not an even matchup. The Patriots will prove it. Patriots 34, Panthers 10.
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